There should be at least one adult in the life of every child whose eyes light up when they see them.
-paraphrased from Gordon Neufeld, Making Sense of Preschoolers
Neufeld’s Stages of Attachment
Canadian developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, outlined six stages of attachment to explain the development of attachment in children. I have found these stages helpful as a mom in knowing how to provide responsive parenting that meets their emotional and attachment needs. Knowing the stages has allowed me to anticipate their needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that can be very powerful and reassuring amidst the uncertainty and challenges of parenting!
The stages that Gordon Neufeld describes are:
Belonging or Loyalty
Earlier this year I outlined the first three stages. Here, I outline the second half of Neufeld’s six stages of attachment. I describe what each of these stages may look like, and how parents can respond to the needs of their child at each stage.
As a background, the six stages of attachment generally correspond to age in years. When life is turbulent and there are a lot of stressors, we may need to spend time revisiting an earlier stage (or simply more time spent in a stage) to fully meet the attachment need. Even we as adults may do well to explore whether we have attachment needs that didn’t get fully met in childhood. Further, attachment stages are not a “one and done” concept: few of us entirely abandon earlier needs (e.g. the need to be close) but rather, the stages build on one another and strengthen the core feeling of being safe and being understood.
Attachment can be temporarily ‘broken’ if we are distracted, angry, or disconnected, or if our children are frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry. And attachment that has fallen apart earlier in the day can be re-established through connection, empathy, and attention. By focusing on re-establishing our connection with our children “in the moment”, we can re-establish the bonds of attachment. In practical terms, this means bedtime can be wonderful one evening and then feel like it is falling apart at the seams on another: if things feel disconnected or out of sync, look at ways to reconnect at your child’s level. It also means that bedtime can be a wonderful time of day to repair attachment: slow down, listen, pay attention, and reconnect during the bedtime wind-down to finish the day on a connected high note.
Attachment Stage #4: Significance
What it is:
The need for a child to feel special, to feel significant to those closest to them.
What it looks like:
At around age 4, despite greater independence and an ever widening circle of security (the distance, physically and emotionally, that 4 year olds are comfortable creating between you and themselves as they explore the world), needs for feeling safe, secure, and significant are high
The most special people in their lives can reciprocate that specialness
Gordan Neufeld has described the importance of every child having at least one adult whose eyes light up when they walk into the room.
What can parents do:
Build on the rituals and routines already established that add special significance to your relationship.
Lean into the night time routine and meet the need for this to be a special time just for them.
Introduce ‘gratitude’ or ‘recap’ to their nightly routine: a short conversation focused on each of your children in turn that allows them to make sense of their day, and allows you to show joy in who they are and what they have done that day. Even with siblings who are sharing the same room, this nightly ritual of a focused one on one conversation can be powerful.
Take the time to reconnect, particularly since this is often an age where children are playing more independently during the day. Make this time special, even if it is a short routine.
Stage #5: Love
What it is:
This stage is all about the need to be loved —we’ve loved our children, but this is the stage to make sure that our love comes through in our actions and our tone at a time of day when we feel ready to focus inward and “tap out”.
What it looks like:
Five year olds may be full of spontaneous “I love you’s”, especially if this kind of verbal expression of love is part of the family culture.
As children’s circle of security widens, and more time is spent away from parents at school or in extra-curricular groups, a sense of love (and belonging from an earlier stage) becomes a core attachment need.
What parents can do to support this age:
Just as you built on the need for significance in the last stage, you can use bedtime as an opportunity to express love verbally or in other ways.
As suggested by Niagara-based Social Worker, Emily Pollak, you can begin to pay attention to your child’s love language. Although it may not be clear at this age, there may be ways that you can show your love that fit your child’s needs in sustainable ways. This quiz is designed for 9 to 12 year olds, but may give you some perspective on what reassures your child that you love them.
Separation and independence are often big themes at this age. Fill their cup when you are together.
Stage 6: Being Known
What it is:
A strong sense that the key people in a child’s life know him or her well, and have a deep sense of who they truly are.
“Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior.” (Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, Hold Onto Your Kids)
What it looks like:
Children can feel hurt if you forget that they like their crusts cut off and feel pleased when you make sure you order their special cheese free pizza. It becomes less about the earlier stage in which children are reassured with sameness and predictability, and more about signs that you know who they are and that you know them deeply.
With sleep, they can feel joy and reassurance when you know to put out their favourite pajamas because they happened to be talking earlier about how long its been since they wore them.
What parents can do to support this stage:
Listen —being known is an ever evolving thing, because children are ever evolving. Listen to their interests, their worries, the things that make them happy. Knowing someone deeply involves paying deep attention.
Be responsive to the fluctuations in their needs. The night you notice they seem more unsettled or they had a conflict or challenge earlier in the day that isn’t resolved could be the night you lay in bed with them (or lay in bed with them longer), for example.
Stages of Attachment are “Signposts”
It is quite astounding how closely these stages of attachment emerged in my own children on or near their birthdays: knowing what was coming developmentally made it a joy to see these new stages emerge. Although the stages are not set-in-stone measures of attachment, and although attachment itself can be broken and rebuilt several times within a day, these signposts are a helpful guide for responding to our growing children. What a pleasure it is to be able to anticipate and adjust your parenting according to something you may not even have notice. And when this helps to strengthen the attachment you have with your child, the benefits of reflective, aware parenting is enormous.
The first three stages are described in an earlier blog.
You can view my 5-8 minute videos describing each stage of attachment via my facebook page. Stage #3 is a stand alone stage pinned at the top of my facebook page, but the rest of the videos are all in a folder together (securely attached!).
If you want to understand more about how to use the Stages of Attachment to strengthen your child’s sleep routine, or want to explore it in other aspects of parenting and the family environment, I welcome you to connect with me via email or phone.
If you want to read or learn more about Gordon Neufeld’s approach to attachment and child development, I recommend his book, Hold Onto Your Kids (co-authored by Gabor Mate). I also highly recommend the online courses offered through the Neufeld Institute, most especially Making Sense of Preschoolers.